Wednesday, December 5, 2012
Two Grunge: A Kurt Response
Also, the real tall drink of water--called himself "Krist," to bug the bourgeoisie maybe; or it could have just been short for "Kristiaan" or some such--came in a couple of times looking for fancy illustrated books to give his collector wife. (Funny how I always had trouble remembering the group’s name--I still do--since the three Nirvana guys so quickly became symbols of the whole Grunge scene.)
One quiet day in late March 1994, into our suddenly spiffy Pike Market bookstore strolled Nirvana's blond front man--I sort of knew his name by then, Kurt Something--yes, Seattle royalty in our humble shop! He had a sleepy toddler boy sitting on his shoulders and was accompanied by a male chum maybe a bit younger than Kurt, wearing a droopy cat-in-the-hat chapeau. The singer looked beard-scruffy but happy.
We exchanged “Hello’s” and then he asked why we had two Leadbelly albums in one of our window displays. Not knowing then that Leadbelly was one of Cobain's musical heroes, I answered that we sold collectable records (these were 10-inch LPs on Folkways) and that I personally loved all sorts of Blues Music.
Like three young actors during the tryouts for some proto-version called Two-and-Some Half-Men, the guys wandered around our store, for twenty minutes maybe, pointing at certain albums, and searching through the kids' books (Dr. Seuss was the favorite, I think); the older two kept trading the small sleepyhead back and forth, from Kurt’s shoulders to his friend’s and back again, three or four times.
Eventually the singer came over to me, without the boy, from the Beat Generation section where he’d last been browsing, and asked if we had a copy of William Burroughs’ novel Junkie, a notorious heroin-addiction potboiler.
I told him we were out of the Burroughs, but that we did have a used, slightly collectable alternative, a little-known and better-written novel called Cain’s Book, by Alexander Trocchi--pointing to it in our display case--but an equally hellish and hair-raising account based on the author’s own years of addiction. Kurt asked to see it, thumbed through the $20 paperback for a couple of minutes, then said he wanted to buy it.
I rang him up, happy as I always was when I managed to unite customer and book sought, even when a comparable substitute, then probably blew my new cred by asking him to autograph a white index card. He looked unhappy about it, but did sign--and cleverly, as I discovered as they left the store--with these words: “Ours, Curdt Kobane.” I didn't know if I'd been rewarded or quietly dissed.
A drug-overdose--was the initial rumor. Nonsense--responded the police--it was suicide by shotgun. When I heard I felt pole-axed... mumbling, struggling to understand what had happened: the singer gone, his son left fatherless, the emotional mess a suicide always leaves for others to deal with. What had I stupidly done by selling such a no-hope, in-the-depths-of-hell novel to a troubled drug addict? I thought, I'm guilty.
But not for long. As your typical insensitive, self-centered human male, my guilt trip lasted only a couple of days, out-argued by rationalizations like... “He was already on the downhill slide, headed straight for self-destruction”... "It was bennies or bindles or buckshot that killed him, not some book"... “Suicide? Maybe not. With Courtney’s, er, love (and lesser interests), we may not have the ‘Hole’ picture yet!”
We all moved on--Ms. Love to Hollyweird and Ferry Llint, the surviving Nirvanans
Gradually, grudgingly, Grunge faded into history.
Fractiously, fearfully, the Nineties became the ‘Oughts became the ‘Teens. The Foos
Written by novelist Richard Seaver who knew Trocchi for some years, the Introduction provides an even-handed personal assessment of the man, described by many as charismatic and charming, a sort of Pied Piper of Heroin, or a Fifties Timothy Leary who sank through addiction and crime to desperate isolation and, finally, suicide. To Seaver the addict-author was a
The back cover of this edition offers quoted statements strong in their praise for Cain’s Book from, among others, writers named Ginsberg, Kesey, Mailer and, of course, Burroughs (pre-eminent among the recent addict-authors). But literary opinions citing words rather than deeds, seem to mean nothing to the author of the novel’s new Foreword... and this truly surprises me, because I know the man slightly and admire his work greatly. Long ago, I wrote reviews subject to his editing at Rolling Stone; Greil Marcus and his wife (Jenny, I
Armed with a doctorate from Harvard; Bi-Coastal and International connections in Music and Art, Academia and political action; and a burnished reputation for knowing more about Bob Dylan and Punk Music and the social history of Music in America than, well, probably any other writer on Pop Culture, Marcus is also a left-leaning commentator rarely without an opinion to express--cogently, and with icy wit--as well as the fiercely intelligent author of a dozen books, including seminal honored classics like Mystery Train and Invisible Republic (now retitled The Old, Weird America) as well as intentionally more provocative titles (Dead Elvis, In the Fascist Bathroom, The Dustbin of History). Why then does Marcus loathe Trocchi so, giving only token assent to his novel?
I can only guess, but... In novel and in life, part of him disapproves of the excessive use of heavy drugs and the wasted lives that result; part of him resists and resents the
(That's Dr. Marcus the academic, gravitating toward insulative order, believing that accumulative demonstrable facts constitute history... but then there's the Greil of Rock'n'Roll freedom, undercutting the good doctor at every turn and with every almost-blue note.)
After all, for more than four decades, Greil in his writings has supported or espoused,
So how does a liberal intellectual who believes deeply in Robert Johnson and Blind Willie McTell, Woody Guthrie and Bob Dylan, Sun Records and Son House, Doc Watson and Dock Boggs, the Band and the Gang of Four, Bruce Springsteen and Stax/Volt, the Harry Smith anthologies and The Johnny Cash Show on TV, the Mekons and Mavis Staples, the Kinks and the Slits, Elvis Costello and that earlier Elvis too... how could anyone as cool and attuned as that begin ranting as though he’d ban the shall-be-nameless book from the shelves, then burn every copy he could get his hands on? Beats me.
But to forestall Marcus coming after me with a buggy-whip, I’m swearing you to silence, Reader... yes, you there, sitting at the computer in your bathrobe. Greil doesn’t need to know that Kurt Cobain was reading that damned book in the week before he died... the one I thoughtlessly provided.